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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 3 & 4

The Church’s Overdue Reconciliation with Liberalism

In his social encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII condemned socialism for rejecting private property and instigating class warfare. But the historical evolution of the concept made it necessary to nuance this view. Already by 1931, Pius XI distinguished between revolutionary socialism, which he continued to condemn outright, and reformist socialism that accepted participation in democratic life—though even the latter remained, in his judgment, incompatible with the Christian faith. A new distinction was introduced by John XXIII and John Paul II, who distinguished between “ideologies” (closed views of reality) and “historical movements,” which, though inspired by ideologies, show greater flexibility and pragmatism through their familiarity with social reality. Thus, though it would not be licit for a Christian to adhere to Marxism as an ideology (in the first sense), it would be possible for him to participate in a “socialist” party to the extent that it was compatible with his faith.

By Gustavo Irrazábal
Source: Revista Criterio
Translated by Joshua Gregor

It is telling that this gradual refinement in the evaluation of socialism has not happened with regard to liberalism, which has always been considered a relatively homogenous body of thought that can be critiqued en bloc. It is a remarkable paradox when we recall that the Church, especially after the Second World War, made great strides in the acceptance of republican democracy (political liberalism) and the market economy (economic liberalism), without this being reflected in a more nuanced view of the philosophy behind them. We could look for a historical explanation, interpreting this fact as a consequence of conflicts between the Church and liberal states in the 19th century. We can also note a certain bias of Catholic sensibilities in favor of appeals to solidarity, as abundant in socialist rhetoric as they are lacking in liberal rhetoric.

It is true, however, that there is a profound difference between a liberal view of society and a Catholic view, and this difference cannot be set aside. Put schematically, in the liberal view the political community has no proper end except in a purely formal sense: that of preserving the autonomy of the individuals it comprises, allowing them to pursue their respective goals in life. In the Catholic view, on the other hand, the political community is not simply a group of individuals concerned with their own goals, but an organic unity joined together by a spiritual bond and endowed with a specific end—the common good—that includes, but at the same time transcends, the particular good of each member of the community.

The difference is less dramatic than it seems if we avoid falling into caricatures. Liberals and Catholics agree that democracy must be founded on respect for human rights, but liberals tend to insist more on civil and political rights (“freedoms”), while Catholics tend to emphasize social rights. Both can accept the idea that democracy must be inspired by values, but liberals generally pay more attention to formal values (freedom and equality, understood as equality of opportunity, i.e., absence of privileges), while Catholics maintain that those formal values lack meaning if they are not rooted in a cultural “soil,” an ethical vision shared by the people at large.

These tendencies reveal an irreducible tension, but not necessarily an insuperable opposition, unless polemic instincts prevail over calm reflection. For public discourse, led by social dialogue, requires both dimensions: a focus on specifically political values (peace, equality, justice) but also the ability to communicate on the level of comprehensive worldviews (religious or otherwise). Without these, political concepts remain “formal”—that is, empty of tangible content. For example, one who seeks to defend same-sex “marriage” by claiming that any adult is free to contract marriage with whomever he pleases is implicitly adhering to a particular view of the nature and end of marriage: the institutionalization of a romantic bond. And one who promotes abortion by appealing to the freedom of the mother is assuming a particular idea of the embryo’s ontological status (in this case, by denying its condition as a human life).

These and many other questions cannot be resolved without appealing to fundamental religious or philosophical convictions. Why should they be left aside or confined to the private sphere if they are in fact unavoidable and, moreover, an indispensable contribution to public dialogue? True civic respect consists not in hiding them or denying their importance but in bringing them into the debate when they are relevant. Political “neutrality” is a myth, generally used to tacitly impose a particular ideology and shield it from criticism.

On the other hand, though, it is true that if we wish to base the unity of society on an “integral,” homogenous idea of culture, we run the risk of coercively imposing a certain conception on the members of society as a whole, either through the state or through some other ideological channel. In this sense, liberal suspicions are understandable, but they can be allayed with two clarifications. In the first place, the spiritual bond to which we referred can be understood in a nonmaximalist way, thus leaving room for the pluralism characteristic of modern free societies. On the other hand, noting democracy’s need for this cultural support doesn’t mean subordinating it to the dangerous concept of a “national being” or relegating the Church to the role of a tutor. It simply implies recognition of her freedom to exercise her mission to evangelize culture, together with the analogous right of other religions and cultural groups to put forth their own messages.

Human rights, which are the heart of modern political ethics, are based on a minimum political and formal consensus. They can be made tangible and concrete only by a sufficient degree of agreement on certain fundamental social values—a certain view of human dignity that prevents the reduction of human rights to empty categories, ideological manipulation, or unreasonable multiplication. A liberalism that entrenches itself exclusively in the affirmation of individual freedoms leads to permanent conflict and social breakdown. A culturalist communitarianism that lives on (historically imaginary) nostalgia for homogeneity leads to explicit or latent forms of authoritarianism.

In this sense, John Paul II maintained that “a democracy without values easily becomes a visible or hidden totalitarianism.” We should add that a democracy that seeks a foundation on a mythical “being of the nation” or of the people runs a similar risk. Reconciliation with liberalism—in the sense of approaching it with both appreciation and critique—is an urgent task in order to give meaning to the evolution of the Church’s social teaching throughout the 20th century. To put off this challenge or, worse, to be ignorant of it would deepen today’s confusion and crisis of republican democracy, the only system that historically has proven effective in defending human dignity.

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Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at Acton, primarily acting as research and executive assistant for International Managing Director Alejandro Chafuen. Before coming to Acton Josh studied philosophy in Rome and earned a master's degree in linguistics. He enjoys languages, classical music, and a good espresso.